"Linked" Book I, Part III ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ It was morning before Verbena crashed in her quarters. Even after she'd been up for almost 26 hours, she still couldn't seem to fall asleep. Her mind kept turning the day's events over and over. She couldn't figure it out and she knew Doctor Spenard was at the same point of confusion. Still, she fought to think of more tests to run, more theories to bounce back and forth. Because when she ran out of those, Sam ran out of time and the implant would be removed. Why did things have to be so complicated? Leave the implant in and Al could die. Which would leave Sam stranded. Take it out, and Al would have to live with the consequences that decision would produce for the rest of his life, no matter how little fault it was of his. Knowing Al, he would blame himself anyway - in that manner, both Sam and Al were frustratingly similar. As for Beth and Donna, they were just caught up in the middle. She splashed cold water on her face, trying to wash away the image of Al's prone form, of Beth's tearful presence carefully masked with an imperfect cloak of courage and unwavering strength. Verbena would let her have that much for now - it was keeping Al's wife together at the seams; it was helping her to go on. "What am I missing?" she demanded of her reflection. "Sam's last leap?" She hesitated. "Ziggy?" "Yes, Doctor Beeks," Ziggy responded calmly. "How is Admiral Calavicci?" She swallowed back her sigh. It seemed to be the question of the day. "No change. Ziggy, did anyone Sam had contact with in his last leap have any possible effect on Al's life?" The pause was barely susceptible. "Doctor, inevitably any changes Doctor Beckett makes leads to a sort of domino effect. One minor alteration could result in massive results." "But Sam had very limited direct access to people in this last leap," she pointed out. "You hear, but you do not grasp the concept," the computer replied, sounding much too superior for her own good. "So explain it again," she insisted. "Doctor Beckett directly influenced two people's lives in this past leap. However, to track each subsequent change from that point would require a great deal of time." "Well can't you just look over the big things and see if there's anything there?" "Your amazing grasp of scientific terminology and concepts overwhelms me..." Verbena gripped the sink. "Ziggy, I have just spent the last 26 hours trying to determine why a close friend is dying while all we can do is stand by and watch. Now, if you _really_ want to push me..." The pause was completely unnoticeable this time. "I am unable to detect any major changes in the admiral's timeline at this point." "Fine. Will you keep searching and let me know if you find anything?" she said, some calm starting to return to her voice. "Yes, Doctor Beeks." She clicked off the bathroom light and laid back down in the bed. "Okay, Sam," she whispered into the darkness, "what did you do this time? Your friend needs you." She closed her eyes. "My friend needs you." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ There was no longer a physical presence. Now there were no sensations to focus on, nothing but his own solitude. Even a painful memory would have been welcome. He wanted to know, to ask, to understand. The warm feeling of companionship he'd felt at the very beginning was long since gone. And it had left him with one message: "You asked for this." Even the familiar feeling of someone he knew that had surfaced momentarily had left him alone. He reached out, seeking, feeling, begging for someone to find him. "Please. Please don't leave me alone." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Beth jerked awake as the pale lights that signaled the approaching dawn began to emerge. She hadn't even planned on coming out into the desert and she certainly wasn't dressed for the chill sundown brought with it. She was amazed she'd still slept through it, which was just an indication of how worn out she was. She stared over the lip of the horizon the sun would rise from and shivered with something other than the cold. That eerie feeling returned and she resisted it. It was cold and alone and scared and it made her ache all over. She murmured a prayer between cracked lips, but, for once, found little comfort in the act. She wasn't alone, she knew that much, but whatever the feeling was, it was from a place deep inside of her, where she couldn't hide. And part of her didn't want to. She turned to go back inside the complex; she didn't want to see the sunrise. Beth first stopped by their quarters for a quick shower and a change of clothes. She couldn't have eaten if she'd wanted to. Then she sought out Verbena. The psychiatrist was still asleep and, when Beth discovered she'd only been that way for a couple of hours, she convinced one of her staff to get the necessary blood and tissue samples for Donna. Then she acquired a handlink and a set of instructions from Ziggy. Doctor Spenard wasn't on duty, either, and Al's room was empty except for a med-tech assigned to monitor for consciousness or anything potentially harmful. Beth relieved him and took her position beside Al's bed. "Good morning, Al," she whispered, feeling the small, terrified sensation within her die down minutely at the words. "I'm gonna keep an eye on Sam for you, okay? I know you don't need to worry about him, too." Somehow the flow of one-sided conversation came easier than it had the night before. She hoped it wasn't because of habit already. "`Course, now I have to figure out this handlink. I don't know how you read this thing - what is it, Morse Code? Why can't you just have a little screen or something?" He still didn't react and she felt an intense flash of disappointment. What, was she expecting him to just jump up and carry on where he'd left off? Explaining her theories on the ‘link suddenly seemed very important. "I mean, this can't be easy on the eyes, either. Pink and yellow and..." She choked. Where was this lack of control coming from, anyhow? She was fine unless she was in the room with him? She missed him dearly every moment she was away, though. "I'm just gonna...stop talking for a while if that's all right," she murmured hastily. She let the `link and all the papers slide to the floor and she lifted his hand and pressed his palm to her cheek. Five hours later, Verbena found her with her head resting on Al's chest, still holding his hand to her face. She wasn't asleep, but Verbena slipped back out without being noticed, toting her data out with her to read over. Beth waited an additional hour before moving. "I've got to go, Al." She smiled weakly. "Gotta go square all this away with Donna so I can observe for you." She stood up and collected her material from the floor. As before, she kissed him and left him alone in the room. Verbena had her things spread out across the chairs in the small nondescript waiting area. Beth stopped in surprise. "Verbena! How long have you been out here?" She flipped through the pages. "About ten tests ago." Beth glanced at the top page. "EKG?" she inquired. "Nothing adds up," Verbena said wearily. "There shouldn't be anything _wrong_ with him! It's frustrating." Beth sat down across from her and she smiled dimly. "I had an interesting notice land on my desk today from Donna." Beth studied the wall behind her. "Oh?" "Are you sure this is a good idea?" "Where's your doctor friend?" "Don't change the subject," Verbena said forcefully. "You won't let me help out with Al because I'm not objective and I didn't argue once you called in this expert. But what I am I supposed to do? Sit in that room 24 hours a day and feel sorry for myself? Someone has to observe and it can't be Al, so why not me?" "What are you going to tell Sam?" Beth realized she was now talking with "the shrink" as Al would say, and it infuriated her. Didn't she have enough to deal with without being picked apart by someone she considered a friend?" Except she knew that's not what Verbena was doing. She was trying to help in the best way she knew how. "I was going to tell him Al was in D.C." "Seems to be the easiest excuse," Verbena commented. "Well, it's convenient." Beth felt suddenly uncomfortable and realized Verbena had picked up on her irritation. Now the conversation felt made up mainly of conspicuous silences. "Donna seemed to think I took the blood and skin samples last night," Verbena said finally. "Do you still need it done?" "No, I feel asleep in the desert by accident. I had Angeline do it this morning." "I hope you know what you're doing, Beth." She took a deep breath and slouched in the chair, folding her arms. "I hope so, too." She paused for a moment. "Verbena, can I talk to you?"' "Always." She hugged herself tightly. "I have...I've been feeling kind of strange lately and it scares me." Verbena put her readouts aside. "Strange how?" She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Like these emotions are running through me and they're not mine." "Not yours?" Beth sighed. "I can't explain it." Verbena crossed her legs. "What emotions?" She released a heavy breath and reached inside herself, where she could feel- "Despair. Abandonment." She looked up shyly. "Lonliness?" "Beth, that's not unusual. Al's condition is uncertain at best and-" "No, you don't understand!" she cried, rising to her feet to release the sudden nervous energy. "Yes, _I_ feel those things but, these sensations, they're not mine! And they're getting stronger." She looked at Verbena. "Am I crazy?" "No," she said. She stood and laid her hands on Beth's shoulders. "You've just spent a long time with Al and you're probably just tired and preoccupied. Why don't you go clean your quarters or let Tina brief you on how hard to hit the handlink." Beth smiled faintly. "Do something to occupy your mind for a while. Then, in a few hours, come back and talk to me. We'll see if you're still worried." Beth looked doubtful, but willing. "Do you think I'm just imaging things? Cracking under the stress?" "No," she said gently, "not at all." She hugged the psychiatrist quickly. "Thanks, Verbena." ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Several test runs later, Donna was finally satisfied with the results of the temporary link they had established between Beth Calavicci and Sam Beckett. Beth, for her part, was exhausted. And not just from all the information Donna had tried to get her to ingest in such a short amount of time, but from the relentless voice inside of her. Where it came from and why it stayed, she was at a loss to say, but she couldn't help but think Verbena was wrong - she _was_ crazy. "Beth? Beth, you still with us?" Donna called to her. She blinked. "Pardon?" Donna brushed her hair back and swept it up into a loose bun. "I was trying to explain some of these simpler systems to you." "Do I have to understand them to observe?" Donna's expression was very unhappy. "I just thought it would give you a better grasp of-" "I don't intend to be doing this for long," Beth said, more sharply than she'd intended, "so if you think you're training a replacement, you can just forget it!" "Beth..." "Isn't that what you're doing?" "Of course not," Donna insisted. "I just want you to be prepared for every eventuality." She wiped her eye with the heel of her hand. "Things happen, Beth, and the entire situation can go from under control to haywire in a matter of seconds, just because of a simple miscalculation. Or even just a misunderstanding." Beth felt she owed the woman an apology, but she couldn't seem to find one. "Can we start this again tomorrow? I wanted to spend a few hours with Al before I go to bed." Donna poised a hand over a manual resting open on a console. "I...guess we can wait. As long as you feel you're ready in case Sam lands tonight or tomorrow." Beth let the `link fall loudly to the countertop. "I don't know, Donna. I just can't deal with this anymore today." The woman seemed about to protest, then thought the better of it. "Okay, Beth, go spend time with your husband." Beth started to leave the room. "And tell him I said `hi'."